April 2006

Diane Schuur
Presented by Toronto Downtown Jazz
April 26, 2006Glen Gould StudioToronto
Polished And On Track
by Dave Barnes
After an extended absence, singer and pianist Diane Schuur returned to Toronto to conclude the Toronto Downtown Jazz 20th Anniversary Concert Series. Offering her distinctive voice and ever-accessible classic and modern standards, this late addition to the series managed to bring in a full and vocal crowd ready to react to the delivery of each tune. Perhaps this highly enthusiastic audience might convince her to return more frequently.

Introduced by fellow singer and Jazz FM host Heather Bambrick, we launched immediately into a joyous and carefully balanced program. Along with her long time regular musicians Mike McArthur on tenor sax and music director Roger Hines on electric upright bass, we had the very effective Reggie Jackson on drums. This was to be practiced and polished entertainment, interestingly arranged and with remarkable fidelity to the renditions on Diane's CDs of recent years.

All this despite some changes in the lineup, especially the recent addition of Jackson to the tour. And what a tour Schuur maintains. Music with such immediate appeal as this can travel far, and few artists make this journey without gaining some ways to anchor the local audience. When in Toronto, the city's name and avowed hipness gets to be injected into the lyrics. However, when bounced from Turkey to Switzerland and back, and then ricocheting off to Poland over the course of a few days, as with her current tour, the worlds of Jazz fans must collapse into a seamless wave of applause with only the shouts of praise from the audience in the local language to distinguish the hall.

Roger Hines has resumed what had been a fourteen-year association as music director and the closeness of spirit and musical taste shows. Keeping with the playful tone set by Diane in her stylings and remarks, the musicians were responsive in their support and sustained the warmth and sentiment favoured for the evening’s selections behind some crisp and skillful playing. Schuur is clearly drawn to the blues but her instinct is to entertain and this she did in abundance. Even the well-known “Every Day I Have the Blues", a song that often serves to enumerate life's complaints, did not weigh down the prevailing good mood.

Diane Schurr

Not everyone is prepared to forgive Schuur's dipping into Pop music, though she always returns to the Blues and Jazz that have sustained her. A tune like "Louisiana Sunday Afternoon" with its simple back beat and repeated refrains next to the subtle and haunting Jazz standard, "Poinciana" can be an uneasy pairing for purists.

Of course, such concerns would not be shared by Diane's many fans who are perfectly happy to make this journey back and forth without fussing over which is the preferred or more sophisticated form. It is this capacity to enjoy well-written material from any source that allows Schuur to relate to and successfully reinterpret the great songs created by James Taylor — we heard his "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" — or Stevie Wonder's "As". Similarly, Schuur's joining with the musically typecast Barry Manilow to create an entire album of originals might strike some Jazz singers as a little risky. No question that Schuur has learned to trust her own taste as to the worthiness of songs. Perhaps she knows best the origins of many of today's Jazz standards and is having fun with such explorations. After all, the Tin Pan Alley origins of the great "The Man I Love" from the Gershwins, or the Hollywood musical origins of "(somewhere) Over the Rainbow" haven't detracted from their classic status and capacity to be made fresh again with judicious phrasing and re-harmonizations such as Diane applies.

And how can we take issue with Schuur's romantic and touching delivery of such great songs as "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To", "The Very Thought of You" or "You Would Be So Easy To Love"? One would be tempted to say she has a Schuur touch if we didn't know that people already take issue with the overuse of such puns.

In Schuur's mention of colleagues and mentors Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, we have the prologue to the topic of her blindness. Via Diane’s private monitor “ears”, the ever-attendant Hines names the upcoming tunes and we realize that leading the band while holding the audience captive might take a lot more determination and focus than might otherwise be required. However, the artifice and the extra effort are not apparent. Nothing is allowed to take us away from the enjoyment of the moment. The music is spirited and the patter comfortable, if sometimes giggled. We, the audience, are totally taken in with the delivery. This is entertainment done well and convincingly.

In the end, each successful performer learns to reveal something of who they are to the audience. We gain clues with each tune and introduction. "I'll Close My Eyes" may have been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and dozens of others, but Schuur makes special the meaning of the lyrics "I'll close my eyes and I'll see you with my heart" as addressed to a lost sister.

With the final and evidently carefully chosen "Life is Good" by Manilow as her second encore, we are provided a final clue to Diane Schuur. She may have rescued herself from earlier demons and have the right to sing the blues, but she is on track to an ever better life.

A footnote
I would like to mention again that the Glen Gould Studio needs the best attentions of its audio technicians to do credit to performers. Some adjustments to levels that should normally have been picked up in a pre-concert sound check were allowed to detract from the opening by these exceptionally prepared musicians and the professional delivery of Ms Schuur.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Dave Barnes
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